The history of the Drug Users Movement

Before I go any further I need to explore the concept of a drug using community it has been the subject of much debate and many people still question the validity of the concept of a drug using community. Do we actually exist as a community? Of course we do! The prohibition of drugs inevitably leads to the development of a community. Drug use is illegal ipso facto drug users are criminals. Forced to develop economic and social networks to keep ones individual supply of drugs achievable and I must confess, to keep those not involved in as much ignorance of our activities as possible. Outside our individual countries we are bonded by a common experience. That goes beyond language, cultural or regional diversity. Our common experience of discrimination, our lack of human rights speaks to every illicit drug user. As I mentioned Liverpool provided the first opportunity for drug users to network on an international level on issues beyond HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. By this time for all its positive contribution HIV/AIDS was only a part of the work that the drug users movement needed to address.

I did not attend the first two conference’s were drug users meet and commenced international communications but at the 3rd International conference in Melbourne on the last day user representatives got together formally for the first time it was the atmosphere was electric. There were over fifty people in the room, seven countries were represented Australia New Zealand Nepal Holland Britain the UIS Germany. Scattered about the conference proper you did not actually get a sense of the numbers of our growing international community.

During this meeting that the first international drug users group was formed, the ‘International Drug Users Network’. IDUN’s aims were to assist user groups and others involved in the injecting drug use issues to exchange ideas and provide help to countries or regions attempting to setup drug user groups and needle exchange. One of IDUNs first actions was to endorse Eigdu Berlin’s declaration of human rights of IUDs. Dave burrows a founding member of IDUN and at that time the coordinator of NUAA undertook the secretariat. Unfortunately due to lack of funding and the pressure that groups had just to deal with the situation in their own country it became increasingly difficult for members to take an active interest. IDUN continued in some form for several years. IDUN formed the basis for the international drug users movement which is developing as I speak.

Users continued to meet at every conference, we watched we learnt . It was difficult for some drug users, the conferences could be overwhelming. The language, the entire process was quite foreign. We had to familiarize ourselves with the minutiae of the movement so we could become actively involved.


By Hobart in 1996 the movement was gaining momentum, several other countries notably Britain were becoming actively involved. These emerging groups from Britain were based on activism and unionism. This period saw the inclusion of recreational drug users to what had
historically been the domain of career injecting drug users who had
responded to HIV. This new development provided a very different
conceptual framework for the movement to work with.

These new members had not been exposed to the systematic oppression and discrimination of injecting drug users. I defy anyone to say that in the face of a constant barrage of negative and hostile community
attitudes that ones sense of self worth is not damaged or compromised
in some way. These people were proud of their drug cultures and saw the fundamental issue of attaining human rights for all drug users as
pivotal to this or any movement of drug users.

This attitude was encouraged by Sam Friedman in his paper on Scapegoating ( a summary version appeared in BP Issue 1 – Ed), we not only had the right but a moral imperative to fight back to address to systematic oppression of our community.

There was some opposition to this new development. Injecting drug users finally found they were being allowed to speak on their communities behalf after years of having it filtered through academic and research which only looked at a part of our behavior never our lives as a whole.

Raffi Balian and Cheryl White in their Commentary “Defining the drug user” bring up some very salient points and I quote “It is important to clearly define “users’ because if we are true to the directives of harm
reduction organizing, these folks are going to be designing the program specifics to their need and setting the goals and agendas of the larger movement(s). These needs should not and cannot be articulated by self interested imposters and there must be a concerted effort to ensure that “privileges” are not usurped by people who can conveniently lay claim to being oppressed as it suits them. They go on to say” The “exclusive inside knowledge” of the user developed through lived experience and often at huge emotional, personal, familial and financial cost. It is of paramount importance. Many people often forget or deliberately neglect the exorbitant price users have paid to attain Narayans “inside knowledge” and exploit users fragile “privilege.

By the time of the conference in Paris, the international movement as growing rapidly and the IMDU meeting hosted by ASUD the French drug user group was an important step in our development. I think
secretly everyone at the conference wanted the Badge.

For the Brazilian International Harm Reduction Conference in ’98, a member of the drug using community was invited on the conference Program and this innovation continues today.

Today in Geneva at the 10th anniversary of the international harm
reduction conference, a drug user presenting a paper on the development of the drug users movement has been invited to present a plenary paper.

It is an important step in the partnership of the International harm
reduction movement and the International drug users movement.
Hopefully this partnership will take us into the new millenium. Drug
users have demonstrated we can do it for ourselves. Speak for ourselves have input into relevant useful treatments and human rights issues.
But combined we are all more powerful.

As a movement, as we grapple with all the issues that inevitably arise particularly with such a diverse and complex community, if we can – as Matt Southwell says in his paper ‘From Division to Diversity’, “Drug use must be turned from a tool of division to a force for unity; lighting the torch for wider community empowerment leading to the ending of the War on drug and comprehensive legalisation.”

We will not only be doing for ourselves but for all of our ourselves.

Thank You.

This speech was reported here unedited, as read by Jude Byrne at The 10th International Harm Reduction Conference, Geneva, on March 20th 1999. Thanks Jude.

Black Poppy can provide anyone interested with any of these papers quoted.

For the very first time, drug users were part of the opening and closing plenary speakers at the 10th anniversary of the International Harm Reduction Conference, held this year in Geneva. As drug using activists from all over the globe came together, it seemed to herald an international resurgence of strength and solidarity as drug users gained unprecedented acceptance as an integral part of the Harm Reduction Movement. Here is the opening speech of the conference, written and delivered by Jude Byrne, a deeply respected drug user activist from Australia. She highlights The History of The Drug Users Movement and what it Has Taken to Get Us Here in 1999……..

The development of the drug user movement over the past decade from Liverpool to Geneva is perfectly encapsulated for me in this quote from ‘A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”

After so many years of drug users being vilified and discriminated against the harm reduction movement represented an opportunity for us to have input. Prior to this our treatments, our lives and our futures were inextricably woven with a movement that had no understanding or acceptance of our choices, our lives, our rituals and our communities. We were not seen as partners in a movement, rather, as dysfunctional people who needed things done to them to get better.

Harm reduction appears, in the drug and alcohol movement in approximately 1985 in several countries. However it was not until 1989 that the international harm reduction movement and these conferences commenced. This development paved the way for the development of the international drug users movement.

The drug users movement history is just a little shorter than the history of mankind itself. I have that on the greatest of authority, mine. For it seems there has always been someone proscribing the use of some substance for social political or religious motivations. However I will not be able to discuss the entire history of the drug users movement, or even the developments over the past decade in individual countries. I am thrilled to say we have so many drug user groups in existence it would take more time than this entire conference has allotted. Individual countries will only be discussed in the context of the international drug user movement primarily within the international harm reduction movement.

In the early seventies, two very different types of drug user organisations were developing, CCMP and Junkie Bond. Junkie Bond, the earliest drug user groups developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s. According to Peter MacDermott in his paper” Will drug users respond to the challenge” it was started “by a couple of activists who were tired of the treatment they got and wanted to do something about it they lobbied politicians and the media to present an accurate picture of the lives of drug users and to gain a voice in policy making. Faced with an outbreak of Hepatitis B in 1982 they distributed clean needles and syringes to combat the virus- and the first needle exchange was born”

Joscelyn Wood (USA) writes in her paper ‘Advocacy the voice of the consumer’, ” Thus is was against the background of offensive attacks that in the spring of 1973 a vanguard of patient’s met to explore the possibility of organizing the first methadone advocacy group. The Committee of Concerned Methadone Patients and Friends inc, CCMP. CCMP were to be involved in two Class Action Suites but the outcomes had an impact on a much wider scale. Discrimination and systematic oppressions could be dealt with on their terms, we had to meet them face on and confront them with their inequality. We could not just sit back and bemoan our fate, an incredibly important lesson for the drug user movement.

The first case was ” Beazer vs New York City Transit Authority’ Where the Honorable Judge Thomas Griesa ruled that, ‘ A public entity such as the transit Authority cannot bar persons from employment on the basis of criteria which have no rational relation to the skills of the job to be performed. To do so is a violation of both the due process and equal protection clause of the Fourteenth amendment’.

The second class action suite involved the Beth Israel Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program. They were dispensing a new methadone formula. The new formula was bitter, so sweetener was added. This sweetener caused the formula to spoil and grow mold. Patients began to experience a range of health related problems due to the new formulae people began taking days off work and school and the symptoms of nausea sweating and fever incapacitated them. When is was obvious Beth Israel was not going to revert o the old formula despite these effects CCMP was forced into action. In July 1995 a class civil action suite was initiated .The Harlem medication case presided over by Honorable Judge Motly ruled the continued use of the formula was a blatant violation of patients civil rights. Beth Israel returned to the proven formula. Although only active for four years the CCMP paved the way for the national alliance of methadone Advocates NAAMA which now has members and affiliated around the world. The common experience of methadone patients has developed an international drug user response.
Although the language had not been developed, the practice had with the advent of methadone treatment. Those two examples are what I call bottom up development, users coming together without any intervention from government to address issues they have acknowledged as worth fighting for.

The next area of drug user movement development is what was called so appropriately by the New Zealand government ‘Contrived spontaneity’. I adore that wording its much more evocative than “A top down approach”.

Contrived spontaneity was the hallmark of the Australian New Zealand drug user group development. The government provided funding for groups to develop and implement HIV prevention initiatives to the drug using community. It was often the case at this time the drug user groups had a ‘champion’ In Australia’s case it was Dr Alex Wodak, who with some clients of his service developed a group called ADIC the first drug user group in Australia in 1986. This group did not last long but it formed the basis of the new group NUAA that has been funded for the past ten years. It is run for and by current drug users.

This support from non-peers was critical at this time. Users did not have the experience that we brought to the harm reduction debate. We were literally still in hiding. It took sometime for users to realise that we could disclose our drug use without wearing negative consequences, like prison welfare intervention and police harassment. Although it must be said that even today we pay a price for our disclosure. This is one of the reasons why it is still so difficult to recruit members to the drug user movement and why there is still the question of whether a drug using community exists.

Many of the drug users that came to the drug and alcohol harm reduction movement had been “blooded” if you will excuse the terminology in the HIV/AIDS movement. Those countries that responded to HIV/AIDS in a pragmatic public health paradigm provided the opportunity for drug users to mobilise. Within the HIV/AIDS response our behavior was not pathologised or seen in the same moral light. It was merely a human behavior that needed to be modified for the individual welfare. Abstinence was not the goal, safer using was.

The HIV/AIDS movement changed the perception of drug users from that of dysfunctional individuals requiring substantial medical and welfare interventions to individuals able to contribute in a meaningful way to the community. For many drug users involvement in HIV/AIDS was a seminal point in our development into drug user activists.

By the Liverpool Conference in 1989 drug users in some countries had experienced four years in the HIV/AIDS movement. We came to the drug and alcohol movement with a very different image of ourselves to that which was represented within the drug and alcohol movement. We were no longer either willing or able to accept the kind of policy or treatment that pre dated the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

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